Let’s face it: the next time a Californian tech entrepreneur crosses legal swords with an Indian construction magnate, the prospect of saving a few thousand pounds on court fees is not going to influence the choice of dispute resolution forum. But London should not be too cocky in the face of the latest challenge to its supremacy, from the new International Chamber of the Court of Appeals of Paris.
A delegation from the court, led by President Macron's justice minister Nicole Belloubet, was in London last week to promote France as the business law jurisdiction of choice. It was an impressive spectacle: not least because the proceedings - including the minister's speech - were conducted in English. Naturally diplomacy was the order of the day, but the clear message was that, following a sometimes painful reforms to the commercial code, France now sees its jurisdiction as a business-friendly alternative to that of England and Wales. Offering, in Belloubet's words: ’The advantages of efficiency and modernisation,' while lacking the 'excesses’ of common law procedures.
Not to mention the flat fee of €100, compared with the Rolls' entry ticket of up to £10,000. The French court will also bend over backwards to present its judgments in a form familiar to common-law trained litigants. Judge Fabienne Schaller said they would be written in a 'more pedagogical way' than is the norm in civil law, and, while not setting precedents as such, would be considered in subsequent cases on similar facts and law. They will be published simultaneously in French and English.
Thanks to the French constitution, there will still be some stumbling blocks for English-language lawyers. According to the procedural rules, while ‘Parties, experts and third party witnesses who appear before the court, and legal counsel who are not French nationals… may use the English language’, pleadings must be conducted in French. Restrictions also apply to rights of audience: the court is open to foreign lawyers - so long as they are accompanied by a French-qualified colleague.
However the main current attraction of the international chamber will be that its judgments are automatically enforceable throughout the EU while the UK's post Brexit position is still uncertain. (The UK government published its wish-list for civil judicial cooperation yesterday.) This must make Paris, along with Amsterdam, a serious competitor to London for commercial dispute resolution.
What can the British do to fight back? As noted at the start, the way to keep London attractive to transnational litigants is probably not to cut fees (whatever the arguments in domestic settings). But the government could help the Business and Property Courts in another way: by investing properly in evidence-management technology. At the moment, much is made of the fact that the Rolls Building requires 'e-filing'. But in reality this amounts to little more than submitting court papers as pdf files - which are then almost invariably printed out into old-style bundles.
The result - clerks out on the trolleys in Chancery and Fetter Lanes - is one of the last great spectacles of the working City of London, but an embarrassment when rivals such as the Dubai International Finance Centre Courts are handling cases entirely electronically across time-zones. This is the competition the Rolls Building and the regional Business and Property Courts are up against, whatever the attractions of the City of Light.